A glimpse inside Jena Nelson’s English composition classroom at Deer Creek Middle School in Edmond provides plenty of confirmation for why the dynamic educator was named Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
Nelson uses her background in theater to engage a generation of students that thrives on being entertained, declaring every hour in her class a different show and using props, songs and choreography to create an atmosphere where students feel they can be themselves.
Over Nelson’s 14 years in public education, she’s taught a variety of subjects from English and writing to drama and theater, declaring herself a life-long learner always up for the challenge of taking on new subject matter.
“I would teach anything except math!” laughs Nelson.
Nelson’s colleagues call her an electric force who knows how to empower and encourage students to take risks and realize their full potential. Nelson’s ardor in the classroom and dedication to her students come from her own experience in public education, which she says saved her life.
“I have done things I never imagined, and it’s all because teachers believed in me,” said Nelson. “That is why I am in the classroom today. I’m here to give what was given to me – a chance.”
Teachers who reached Nelson even in the midst of her teenage anger and defiance, cultivated by her traumatic home life, gave her hope then and still sustain her passion for teaching today.
Though Nelson says she was “absolutely shocked” when her name was called as the state’s teacher of the year, her current and former students were not. Nelson helped former student Lauren Coco transfer to a different college in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when she wasn’t able to continue coursework in the ravaged city. Kennedy Porter remembers Nelson bringing in a Broadway actor to help drama students gain greater understanding and leverage to follow their dreams to a big stage. Porter also recalls Nelson following her car home after the high schooler had a particularly rough day, just to make sure she arrived safely. Deontaye Wilson calls Nelson both “outrageous” and the best teacher he’s ever had, grateful to her for encouraging him not to settle for less than his best.
In addition to being an educator, Nelson finds her life’s purpose in being mom to 15-year-old Rase and 9-year-old Linnea and wife to Carl, a professor and director of chorale studies at the University of Central Oklahoma. This is Nelson’s third year in Deer Creek; she taught previously in Edmond Public Schools, Putnam City Public Schools and East Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
Oklahoma’s 2020 Teacher of the Year shares more about her hopes and dreams for her students and public education in the state of Oklahoma:
Your mantra has been that public education saves lives. How did it save yours?
There was a lot of instability in my household, neglect and abuse. Getting to school was like breathing. I knew I’d get to see my teachers and experience kindness there. There was structure; I knew what my day would be like and what the expectations were. At home I didn’t know what it was going to be like from day to day. But at school I had my support system and for those hours I was in a safe environment.
What do you love about working with teenagers?
I love the fact that they are emerging and starting to have their own opinions about the world. They are trying to express themselves and find their own way. By the end of the year they grow into themselves and really soar. I see that in their writing and how they communicate. I get to see all they could possibly be, all their potential, if they will just stick with it.
How have you incorporated college and job readiness into your middle school classroom, and why is that so important to you?
Coming from the high school environment getting kids ready for college, helping them get scholarships or jobs and then transitioning to middle school I realized I could focus on career readiness there, too. Right now my students are researching careers they might be interested in, putting together infographics and getting ready to make presentations to the class. Every student leaves my class with a starter resume, they can write professional emails and business letters and they learn how to interview. I work hard to instill work ethic, empathy and real-world applications so they leave feeling successful.
What are you most focused on during your stint as Oklahoma’s teacher of the year?
My platform is a combination of career readiness and trauma-informed care. But if I can do one thing this year, it will be a revolution of morale. Our state is facing a lot of issues, but we know what the problems are and it’s time to get past that to work on solutions and not pass the buck to someone else. Everyone has to take ownership; it can’t just be teachers, it’s got to be all of us coming together. I truly believe together we can make Oklahoma’s public education a top 10 in the nation.
What’s the single most important thing parents can do to support teachers?
Call your legislators and tell them how amazing your teachers are. Our legislators want to invest in a business they feel is succeeding. We hear so many negative stories, but if you want them to support public education take the time to send a quick email, make a call or write that Facebook post to tell them how great things are. Tell your story of how public education saved your life or how your kids have benefitted. And in the classroom if parents can spend just a little time reading to students, helping with testing or making copies, it makes the world of difference to teachers to feel that support.
How has being a mom impacted who you are as a teacher?
Especially when my son was born, I had to learn to be a lot more patient. And that’s been patience across the board, not just with behavior but with how my students learn and grow and their grades. Not all kids just wake up making straight A’s; some have to work really hard and will struggle and make mistakes. But they all know I still love them.
When you’re not teaching, what do you love to do?
Gardening is a big passion of mine, and I love canning and making jams and jellies. We raise chickens — I’m really a farm girl at heart. I grew up in a wooded area with all kinds of animals I was responsible for and a one-acre garden. I love being connected to nature.
How does your family enjoy spending time together?
We love traveling and being outside. We really love to eat! We go back to Louisiana quite a bit to see friends and we love Cajun food. We try to eat as much as we can while we’re there!
“There is no greater joy than watching my kids grow and thrive and struggle and fail and then succeed again at things they never thought they could do. Today I get to inspire. Today I get to teach. Today I get to send kids into the world and watch them be extraordinary.” – Jena Nelson